Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
“How can you build peace with empty stomachs?” This trenchant question, raised by Rajendra, Acting Country Director of Search For Common Ground – Nepal, has been stuck in my head, wedged somewhere between a number of additional unanswered questions, a healthy level of frustration as well as a deep level of admiration and appreciation. As is often times the case lately, it seems, I find myself conflicted, confused and crippled by doubts of progress. Yet somewhere in this vast sea of uncertainty, lies a profound level of respect for the tireless work of several groups as well as the genuine desire of a number of Nepalese, to rebuild their country. With flawless English diction and pronunciation, I’ve heard, across Nepal, a cacophony of local voices emphatically stating that indeed, there is always a silver lining. Yet after an ephemeral visit to this vibrant country, I struggle to find that elusive lining. Peacebuilding, it seems, continues to be covered by bureaucratic clouds, and yet the potential for a bright future is most certainly there…
“Welcome to Nepal,” exclaimed one of the coordinators, as we landed in Katmandu’s dusty airport, “where nothing is simple and no one agrees on anything except where to meet and what to eat.” This visit would help to frame and contextualize our analysis on post-conflict scenarios – a topic which has been at the forefront of our lessons and discussions for the past 3 weeks. Personally, I was elated to set foot for the first time on Himalayan soil, a region which has attracted me for as long as I can remember. Surely, the countless conversations with my Dad about his memorable trek to the base of Everest in the 1980s must have had something to do with it. And my fascination with Nepal’s uniquely-shaped flag (the only one in the world which does not follow a rectangular pattern) added to the enthralling mix of reasons for this palpable excitement to visit such a complex nation, merely the size of North Carolina. And yet so much more… Having studied a number of different post-conflict environments and having been privileged to travel to Liberia, South Sudan and the Balkans, I was eager to get a first-hand perspective of yet another perplexing country, which like the aforementioned nations, is still licking its fresh wounds from years of debilitating conflict. Naively, I thought I could draw a number of parallels. Boy, was I wrong!
Now, comfortably cruising at 30,000 feet (incidentally, almost the exact same altitude as the top of Everest), en route to Bangkok, I’m desperately trying to digest it all (including the hundreds of “momos” I took down). Compulsory culinary side note: If you haven’t experienced the pleasure of indulging in one of these pillows of doughy goodness, you are simply missing out on life. As for the rest of the digestion process is concerned, I’m afraid my outlook is not as effusive. Why can’t I at least draw some sort of concluding thoughts? Alas, I’m afraid I’m still hindered by the same paralyzing doubts of progress and blinding uncertainty about Nepal’s post-conflict status. Notwithstanding these limitations, I will do my best to articulate a few of my modest reflections…
As we etched our way closer to our hotel in Thamel, the booming tourist district located in the heart of the capital, I was blown away by the city’s vibrance – the sights, the sounds, the smells! Unlike any other poverty-stricken places I have visited, I was impressed with the city’s seemingly effortless ability to function in spite of all the chaos and dearth. Much less impressive was the dense layers of pollution permeating through ever corner of the city! Upon checking in to the appropriately and conveniently-named Hotel Thamel, we were briefed on the load-shedding schedule. “Load-shedding,” for those of us who are unaware of this practice, comfortably anchored in western electrical abundance, is more or less a rolling blackout – a scheduled electric power shutdown for non-overlapping periods to avoid a total blackout! A distant minor in Economics reminds me that it all comes down to supply and demand. In this case, the demand for electricity in Nepal far exceeds the power supply as a result of insufficient generation capacity and precarious infrastructure unable to deliver adequate power to the area – a paradigm, it seems, for so many other elements of Nepali society – from load shedding to peace building!
Shortly after checking in, we ventured into the bustling streets of Kathmandu to quench our growing appetite with more some of the city’s delectable offerings and its nocturnal attractions. After a local gastronomic feast, beautifully complemented by a traditional Nepali show, involving all kinds of melodic rhythms and sumptuous movements, we were keen to explore some more. Slaloming our way through the countless trekking offices and souvenir-ridden stores, we eventually settled on an assuming watering hole where we shared our first impressions while sipping on various local and imported libations. While some of us had already been to Nepal, a collective amount of excitement pervaded. We were all eager to peel off some of the many layers of this complex country, especially after the rigorous amount of post-conflict theory we had all been privy to.
The following day, we were greeted by Bhimsen, an ex-Rotary Peace Fellow (the 3rd of 3 from Nepal to date), who had gone through our program 5 years earlier and who would be our main host for the duration of our visit. Bhimsen provided us with an insightful overview of the current political and social situation in Nepal. Keenly cognizant of our exponentially-growing list of queries, he shed light on a number of topics, ranging from the challenged health care system (his area of expertise) to the frustratingly-debilitating political hurdles clearly hindering the peace and reconciliation process. Despite the eagerly-awaited Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) which was signed in 2006, Nepal has yet to come out with a functioning constitution. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought… 7 years beyond the conflict capitulation, fueled by an intelligent and competent work force, all framed within the collective desire for a fair and free democratic principles, and yet no constitution? Thus, here lies the central conundrum – a frustrating and vexing one at that! This trip, more than any others, has underscored the absolute need to harmonize culturally-sensitive peacebuilding programs with essential development efforts to curb Nepal’s incessant strife. Rajendra’s question continues to haunt me as I attempt to make sense of this necessity.
Currently ranking 157 out of 167 countries, according to the UNDP’s latest Human Development Index, Nepal’s story, since the introduction democracy in 1990, has been plagued with political instability. In the past 2 decades alone, it has had more than 20 governments. Yes, that would be one government every year, on average! However unsettling that may be, one needs not look much beyond the past 7 years to realize the frustrating complexities with Nepal’s political turmoil. According to the World Bank, during this period, Nepalis have witnessed the signing of a peace agreement between the former Maoists rebels, and the state, a new interim constitution, the election of a Constituent Assembly, the abolition of monarchy, the declaration of a federal republic, and the rise of strong ethnic identity movements. Far be it from me to judge, given the country’s multifaceted ethnic and social fabric. With well over 100 different castes and ethnic groups and almost just as many languages, I suppose a little bit of empathy is in order. Yet, somehow, I can’t seem to get past my frustration.
To be honest, it simultaneously irks and reassures me that I find this all too troubling. With the exception of a few in our group (myself most certainly NOT included), none of us truly know what it’s like to deal with such crippling hurdles day after day. 7 years IS a long time and hardly anyone, in and out of Nepal, can refute the struggles of the government and its deceleration of the peacebuilding process. With a 1.4 billion Nepali Rupee Peace Fund budget, overseen by the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction, it is infuriating to witness the stagnant state of affairs and seeming ineffectiveness of this ministry. Many players seemed more concerned with providing sufficient amounts of tea and biscuits. What about tangibly reconstruct the country’s essential pillars – health, education and the livelihood of so many of its citizens, including the ex Maoist fighters, members of Nepal’s People’s Liberation Army, who until very recently were still living in “temporary” cantonments?
… But, again, who are we to judge? My good friend John Lamming would urge us not to do so but rather to “think critically.” Fair enough. The truth is, it is highly ambitious and somewhat pretentious to take intellectual refuge under the countless post-conflict theories and reconstruction paradigms. And after a mere week in this country, it is equally pompous to pretend to understand the complexity of Nepal’s post-conflict transition. Yet some standards must be applied, I suppose. While it is easy to criticize the country’s bureaucratic impediments and to be dismayed by the snail pace of its constitutional implementation, I was reminded several times that people are at least “talking” and “sitting at the table,” which accounts for something – a promising sign, I’ve been told. Be that as it may, I’m not convinced nor am I honestly hopeful that a constitution will materialize any time soon. I hope I’m wrong. Regardless, what I can attest to, with a much greater degree of confidence, is the demonstrable signs of progress in the development sector. Fueled by the tireless devotion of a number of thoughtful Nepalese individuals and the admirable work of sensible NGOs on the ground (many of which we had the privilege to visit and interact with), this progress is most certainly there, albeit overshadowed by governmental sluggishness.
Take, for example, Naya Paila Saving and Credit Cooperative, a grassroots women’s organization, which started as a modest local micro-finance organization in 2010 “to build a co-operative economy that promotes social and economic justice and advances the well-being of women and their communities.” Before establishing this co-op, a subset named “Women Involvement and Empowerment” initiated a women literacy class, supported by the Educational Resource and Development Center – Nepal (ERDCN). Now, fully integrated within the co-op (which comprises 353 members) this program has taught hundreds of economically marginalized women how to read and write. When asked how this program has impacted her life in the backdrop of the post-conflict era, an emotional and highly courageous participant replied: “the real conflict was with me… Before we learned how to read and write, I did not know the rights of women; that we are equal… I became stronger and more empowered.”
And yet so many other points of light, illuminating a road to social progress. Community Radio VIjaya, operating out of Chitwan (about 130 km from Kathmandu) is another. Established in 2000, in the thick of the conflict, Vijaya FM is the fruitful result of the common desire of local people to give a “voice to the voiceless” – to everyone from all socio-economic backgrounds (farmers, small and local practitioners, teachers, journalists, advocates and professionals). Currently comprising more than 75,000 members, the radio uses traditional and creative and creative dissemination mechanisms to empower and inspire its growing base of followers. “Through the various types of broadcasting content, Vijay FM continuously focus to uplift the quality of life of community and targeted people by providing valuable information regarding human rights, livelihood, community self reliance, rights to information and freedom of expression, good governance and people participation in decision-making process that affects their daily lives.” I think I may just have found the perfect group with which to partner and create an Entertainment-Education community radio program! Stay tuned for more on this…
Search for Common Ground is another organization which is substantially and sustainably contributing to the country’s post conflict reconstruction efforts through creative grassroots initiatives. Driven by its governing mission to “transform the way the world deals with conflict away from adversarial approaches, toward cooperative solutions,” Search Nepal has been galvanizing people from across ethnic and political dividing lines. It has been partnering with local groups to implement sensible peace-building programs at the community level, all throughout the country, including in the much needed far and remote rural areas – many of which are home to a number of ex-combatants, eager to reintegrate into the community. The work of Search Nepal and my conversations with Rajendra and his incredibly competent, driven and dedicated staff, give me hope.
Jerry Garcia, lead singer of the Grateful Dead, reminds us that “once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.” In a country beleaguered by dense clouds of bureaucracy and a stratosphere of stagnant political growth, it is difficult to make any genuine sense of this light and Nepal’s potential. But it’s there. My time in this beautifully complex country, albeit far too short, and my interactions with many of its determined citizens and its vibrant communities, most definitely illuminate this much-needed pathway to progress. Now let’s strive for less load shedding and more peacebuilding!
Alex Cottin, France/USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2013 Session